A 9th Circuit Court decision regarding homeless camping was released recently. It ruled that Boise’s ordinance making sleeping on city property a misdemeanor was unconstitutional because it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The decision has sparked discussion on Ashland’s regulations related to camping on public property — which raises the broader question of what the city of Ashland is doing to be a positive influence in addressing local homelessness issues.
Councilors Dennis Slattery and Jackie Bachman have been facilitating discussions with the faith community, community volunteers and homeless advocates to find a way to provide a seven-nights-a-week winter shelter in a single location for Ashland’s homeless individuals and families this year. During the past few years the city’s Pioneer Hall has been used as a winter shelter in conjunction with shelter nights provided by the faith community. For many reasons Pioneer Hall may not be able to be used for a winter shelter this year.
Also this year Mayor John Stromberg has joined the Jackson County Continuum of Care Board of Directors. The COC is a regional body that seeks to provide a forum for collaboration and coordination with the goal of developing a regional approach to homelessness and offering preventative services to those at risk of being homeless. Efforts include developing a regional system to provide pathways for our local homeless individuals and families to move back into the community. The COC also has access to federal funding specifically dedicated to the homeless.
Over the current biennium, the city of Ashland will distribute close to $1 million from local and federal grant programs. Much of this money has been awarded to agencies that provide services to individuals and households without housing or vulnerable to losing their housing, including emergency rent, deposit assistance and individualized case management for the homeless. Additionally, a significant percentage of the grant money has been awarded to local agencies that will perform a variety of improvements to homes serving adults with disabilities, as well as to nonprofit housing providers that intend to construct permanent housing for lower income households and specifically for people experiencing mental illness.
But the vision of a seven-night shelter opens up new opportunities by helping people recover from the brutality of life on the streets and regain sufficient confidence and clarity to begin taking significant steps: to employment, to counseling, to sobriety, to transitional housing, etc. that could be provided via a regional system guided by the COC and supported by dedicated federal funds available through it.
Years of hard work, experimentation and resourcefulness in building up Ashland’s shelter program and the other organizations that support it have created an infrastructure of experience, relationships and dedication among a group of community members who are now seeking not just to stabilize and protect our local homeless but to help them rejoin our community as contributing members.
The next three years are a window of opportunity and working out the specifics requires great attention and persistence (but getting this far has been at least as demanding). These people deserve the gratitude of all of Ashland. They have brought us to the threshold of living in community at a new level.
On Sept. 7, the Daily Tidings printed an editorial stating “Sleeping is not a crime.” The editorial is legally correct, for sleeping on public property in Ashland is not a crime (an offense for which one can be jailed); it is a violation. A violation is not a misdemeanor or any other criminal offense for which a person can be jailed. Accordingly, the 9th Circuit opinion does not apply to the city’s regulations. The city’s ordinances are aimed at preserving safety and economic viability for all citizens of Ashland; they establish norms for public behavior regardless of one’s economic or social status — just as do laws against speeding or smoking in certain areas.
But when addressing local homeless issues we help each individual, on a person-by-person basis, on her/his unique path of recovery and re-entry into the community. This current moment in time holds great opportunity, for us all. We invite all interested community members to join in the effort. Together we can provide the services needed to support our unhoused citizens.
Kelly Madding is Ashland city administrator. John Stromberg is Ashland’s mayor.